Monday 27 September 2010

Why we need a bit of corporate history

The late, great entrepreneur Anita Roddick used to describe the corporate bosses dominate our lives as “dinosaurs in pinstripes’.

She coined the phrase accepting her first business award. There was a sharp intake of breath and suddenly there was Robert Maxwell, of all people, storming out in protest.

She developed the idea later. The corporations were entities, with all the rights of human beings, but which could show no emotions apart from greed and fear. They were able to make a hefty meal of their own tails.

It was an idea that was taken up shortly afterwards by the new economics pioneer David Korten, when he called his book When Corporations Ruled the World.

One of the least human aspects of these corporate monsters is their complete lack of history. You and I have histories, or at least narratives we use to make sense of the things that have happened to us.

Not so the corporations. There are obscure tomes of corporate history which only academics read, and there are cursory notes – written by marketing departments – that appear on websites. Otherwise that’s it.

We live in an age where the PLC is almost the proudest institution on earth. But actually, seen through an historical perspective, they are flimsy, fragile, insubstantial things, which flower briefly and then disintegrate into their constituent bits – a few brands there, a vice-president here, an office block again there. More like multinational mayflies than megacorps.

Yet because there are no histories of these corporations, no back stories, no roots – we let them control our lives with stories about them conjured out of the air by whatever director of marketing they last employed.

That is why my colleague Andrew Simms and I set out to do something about it. It occurred to us that what the big brands needed was a dose of what Lytton Strachey did for his Eminent Victorians – an experimental new kind of mini-biography.

Like the Victorian giants, we have an absolute avalanche of information about the corporations that dominate our lives – rather as Strachey and his Edwardian friends did about the giants of the Victorian age – but very little actual knowledge.

The antidote to this is our new book Eminent Corporations, published this week by Constable & Robinson. There are eight stories in it – from the deep past (the East India Company), through to the tragic failures of big visions (M&S and Cadburys), and to outrageous chutzpah (BP).  There are a couple of moral crusades which became multinational monsters of greed (Barclays). Even the BBC has a place.

Once you put flesh on these flimsy things, and find the humanity behind their stories – find there were in fact stories there in the first place which explains a little of who and what they are – then everything seems different.

My name is Ozymandius plc. Look on my works ye mighty and despair.

Buy the book at:
Come to the Eminent Corporations lecture at the National Maritime Museum on 30 Sept at 7pm:

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